Cooper had been to the Olympics once before. Her trip ended with a memorable act of sportsmanship and a catastrophic injury. Friday night, she showed how badly she wanted to go back. Cooper broke away from the pack during a preliminary heat in the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, needing to make the 15:10 qualifying time and sensing an opportunity.
The gambit had started on a whim. Forty-five minutes before the start of the race, Cooper’s coach, Chris Lane, approached her. It would be 97 degrees on the track for Monday night’s final, he told Cooper. Normally, a 5,000 meters final with the fastest women in America would necessitate a 15:10 finish. But in that heat, the race may be too slow. Even if she finished in the top three, she may not have the requisite time.
“You don’t have the standard,” Lane told Cooper said. “There isn’t enough time to chase it. If it’s slow, I want you to consider going for it.”
The message frazzled Cooper. She thought it through and prayed as she approached the start line.
“Not an ideal amount of time to think about it,” Cooper said. “But I’m really glad he mentioned it.”
For the first two laps, Cooper trotted with the pack of 10 women, a heap of runners where Cooper knows too well that anything could happen. At the 2016 Rio Games, Cooper — then D’Agostino — tangled legs with New Zealander Nikki Hamblin. They both tumbled to the track. Cooper rose despite a twisted knee, helped Hamblin and encouraged her to keep going.
Cooper limped around the track, finishing in about 17 minutes, last by two minutes. She had to be rolled off the track in a wheelchair. Tests revealed Cooper had torn her right ACL, an injury that would take years to recover from. But she had finished the race and made sure Hamblin did, too. “That girl’s the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said afterward.
Friday night, the race was moving slow after three laps. Cooper felt good and knew she needed to take a chance.
“The best times in my life have been times where I just operated on faith, just stepped out on faith,” Cooper said.
Cooper took the lead. Slowly, she carved space between herself and the pack. It dawned on the track-savvy crowd at Hayward Field that Cooper wasn’t making a tactical error and exhausting herself for the final. She had decided to go for the qualifying time. She was planting her flag.
After 7:14, she was completely alone. She grimaced and gritted her teeth as she reached the last 600 meters. The final lap bell rang at 13:59 – she needed to run the oval in 71 seconds in order to reach the standard.
As she made the first turn, the crowd rose and roared. She had seen her college coach from Dartmouth, Mark Coogan, earlier in the day. She thought of what he would always say: “Run a hard last mile!”
As she came out of the turn, 16 seconds after she heard first it, the lap bell rang again — the rest of the field had made it.
Cooper reached the last 200 meters with 35 seconds to spare. She pumped her arms and breathed deep. Every athlete on the field lined up near the inside lane, clapping and exhorting her. She heard noise but no voice, too focused on running, on finishing.
In the final 100 meters, she knew she would make it. She looked at the clock as she trundled across the line: 15:07.81. Cooper smiled. As she collapsed, she felt worshipful and overwhelmed.
Cooper has not made the Olympics yet. She still has to finish in the top three Monday night, a task made easier by the absence of Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder who received a four-year ban for a positive drug test last week. She has two days to recover, but she was confident she could. Even after the race, she felt tired, not wiped.
“The joy I feel right now, I know that a cheerful heart is good medicine,” Cooper said. “I’m just going to keep the positive energy going into Monday.”
Cooper plans to spend much of the next two days in ice baths and with her legs up in the air. She hopes Monday’s race will send her back to the Olympics, not to redeem 2016, but to add to it.
“I have goals of going back to the Olympics, I hope multiple times, and having a totally different experience,” Cooper said. “But I’m really grateful. That was a supernatural experience, everything that happened there. I don’t feel resentful of what happened there. I just want to have another experience to add to it.”
It has been a difficult five years since Rio for Cooper, one injury leading to another. She even pulled a hamstring 12 days before trials. She is finally healthy now. Her time resonated beyond what it meant for her Olympic bid. Late Friday, somebody pointed out that it was also her fastest 5,000 time since 2015.
“Oh my gosh, six years,” Cooper said. “I think it’s going to take me a little while to process that. The past five years since Rio have been so much harder than I ever could have imagined. Thank God I didn’t know how hard it was going to be. I kept going because this is a calling for me. I love this sport. The joy of it sometimes is robbed when you’re in a cyclical pattern of injury. I’ve been more healthy the past couple years. I feel so overwhelmed. I’m so thankful. It just feels good to feel it within myself, doing something like that.”